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Staff Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Driving Research Through Passion

In the world of research and academia, where the maxim “publish or perish” still rules, Kevin Shield is flourishing. With 60 articles and book chapters published, 20 just in the last year, he is well on his way to making his mark. “When you’re passionate about something and you work hard, that passion translates into what you submit; I think it really comes through,” says the PhD student at the University of Toronto who is conducting epidemiological research at CAMH.

Early on in university, Kevin thought his future was in medicine but he quickly realized he had a different calling. “I can’t handle death and sickness first-hand,” he admits. “I wanted to do something where I have the possibility of changing things so public health research was a great fit for me.”

Kevin Shield
CAMH Research Kevin Shield.

And what drives Kevin is his passion for investigating ways to improve the health of communities and countries when it comes to alcohol consumption. “My job is to see how much alcohol affects people’s health and to influence public policy to have an impact on how much alcohol people consume. Those contributions will hopefully lead to fewer problems in the future due to alcohol,” he explains.

It was the drive to change things by looking for far-reaching solutions that brought Kevin to CAMH. “Alcohol dependence is partly genetic and partly learned. For some people, they like that first drink a little too much and the more they drink, the more their brains become rewired,” he says. “In North America, people say they’re addicted to alcohol, but I like the German saying that they’re a slave to it. I think that’s a better description.”

Dr. Jürgen Rehm, Director of the Social and Epidemiological Research Department says Kevin brings special skills to the research he does at CAMH. “It is the very unique mixture of scientific rigour, creativity and hard work that makes Kevin a superb researcher and a global scholar,” says Jurgen Rehm, “The skills he has are very rare – the mathematical tools to deal with the complex data and at the same time, he has the ability to see trends before others do and those qualities make him truly unique.”

Kevin is enthusiastic when talking about the emerging area of population health modeling and its role in changing policies to improve the health of citizens around the world. “The goal is to decrease harmful alcohol consumption,” he says. “We have found that no country consumes alcohol in a healthy way and, because it’s an addictive substance, the small benefits of moderate drinking are outweighed by the problems associated with harmful drinking.”

Kevin’s research reaches out globally to Asia. For instance, he is currently investigating the metabolism of alcohol in the Japanese population. Because a lot of people in Japan have a variation in a gene responsible for healthy alcohol metabolism, alcohol consumption produces a huge amount of carcinogens, says Kevin. “When Japanese drinkers consume four or five drinks a day, their cancer risk goes through the roof. The risk of esophageal cancer rises to 80 times that of a non-drinker.”

It is the ability to improve people’s lives through mathematical formulas and by combing through data that fuels Kevin’s desire to spend countless hours in the research lab. But it’s not just his intellectual curiosity and his incredible work ethic that have propelled Kevin into the world of alcohol research. For Kevin, it’s personal.

“I come from a family where there have been alcohol dependence problems and that has driven me to undertake this type of research. I know the effect alcohol can have on an individual’s life and on a family’s life,” he says. “I feel that’s why I can make a difference; my research gives me the opportunity to make other people’s lives better.”

And he is well on his way. Once he finishes his doctorate, Kevin hopes to expand the scope of his research to explore other lifestyle issues, including high blood pressure and diet, to improve the lives of people around the world. “I believe that by looking at the big picture and by investigating what the data tell us about health problems,” he says, “we can actually intervene earlier and improve the health of entire countries.”

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